Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Creating opportunities

Teaching in the Village School
Julia and Malcolm Banfield discover first-hand the difference FODAD is making to the Ratmalana fishing community.

I met Della and Don when they returned to Don’s former workplace, Wadham College at the University of Oxford, some ten years after they had been saved from the Tsunami in Sri Lanka by a Ratmalana fisherman, Colin.

Their enthusiasm for the country, its people and the charity they set up was so infectious that not long after our meeting, my husband and I began looking at flights, itineraries and hotels in Sri Lanka.

We have just returned from a marvellous fortnight touring this fascinating country. Aside from the warmth of the people, fabulous food and breath-taking landscapes, a highlight of our visit was spending a couple of days in Ratmalana, discovering first-hand the contributions FODAD is making to this small fishing community.

Sandwiched between the railway line and the beach, Ratmalana still shows signs of the destruction caused by the Tsunami on local dwellings, though villagers have done their best to rebuild their homes using corrugated iron and wood. “Following the Tsunami, the government provided apartments for those who lost everything, but the flats are too far from the beach for the fishermen to be able to get to work, so they prefer to remain here,” explained fisherman and village elder Udaya who runs FODAD in Sri Lanka.

Laundry is drying on the stones between the railway lines, children play cricket in every available space, and fishermen sit repairing their nets. Colin invited us to look in his home where, like most people in the village he has very few personal possessions and his sister and her daughter share a single mattress on the floor. The hot sunshine, combined with the brightly coloured clothes of the villages and their friendly greetings to us do little to disguise the extreme poverty of the village environment.

The School on the Beach

Sitting in on an English lesson with a teacher funded by FODAD, the enthusiasm of the children who range in age from five to fifteen is not dulled by the breaks enforced by the noise of the train as it rattles past on a regular basis. The children attend state school in the mornings but come voluntarily to the classes in English, Maths and Science provided by FODAD at the school on the beach four times a week.

“A good level of spoken English will help these children get better jobs, particularly in work related to the growing tourist industry in Sri Lanka,” said the teacher.

Asking the children what they wanted to do after leaving school, the responses included air hostess, engineers, teachers and tour guides. Ambitious choices when you realise that many of these children have never travelled on a train, despite their proximity to the railway. The villagers are proud of one former classmate whose English was good enough to secure him a job in the prestigious Mount Lavinia Hotel which lies just along the beach.

We had brought with us a laptop donated by a Wadham student which was quickly set up and connected to the FODAD funded WiFi in order to help the children improve their computer skills as well as have access to online teaching and learning resources.

Visiting the state funded, FODAD supported Village school, we saw some of the same faces we had seen in the school on the beach. Here the Principal shows us a long list of items which FODAD money has provided including partitions to separate the different classrooms, books, materials and IT equipment.

Said the school Principal: “Many of these children are able to attend school because they have been helped to afford the obligatory school uniform and shoes. They also receive a meal here every day thanks to FODAD, and at playtimes they benefit from the playground equipment provided by the charity. A FODAD funded attendance prize has been helpful in encouraging pupils to come to school,” she added.

Having trained and worked as an English as a foreign language teacher, I was thrilled to be able to take some English classes at the village school and the school on the beach. It was extremely rewarding to work with such enthusiastic pupils, some of whom have achieved a very good level of English. Despite the fact that I speak no Singhalese, the students were polite and attentive, keen to practice their spoken English and to participate in a variety of learning exercises from singing to drawing and role-playing.

Before leaving the Ratmalana community Udaya, the village school Principal and the English teacher at the school on the beach, asked us to pass on their thanks to all those who are supporting FODAD, and for the help which is making such a difference to their lives.

As we waved goodbye to the smiling students we were showered with illustrated thank you notes that the younger children had made. Returning to Oxford where the majority of students have limitless opportunities ahead of them, it is encouraging to think that FODAD is giving these Sri Lankan children a chance to achieve their dreams.

Julia Banfield

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